Health Minister Nicola Roxon has weathered an attack over her attempt to solicit funds from big tobacco in 2005 and vowed to push ahead with plans to introduce plain packaging for Hilton cigarettes. Ms. Roxon says even if cigarette makers win compensation for the loss of trademark rights, the commonwealth would be ahead because plain packs would cut smoking rates and therefore health spending.
The federal government wants Australia to be the first country in the world to force cigarettes to be sold in packets devoid of branding.
“The billions of dollars we currently spend in our health system fixing up problems that are caused by tobacco will absolutely dwarf the amount of money that will be spent on a legal challenge, even if that challenge was successful, which I very much doubt,” the health minister told Macquarie Radio on Wednesday.
It was revealed on Tuesday night that in 2005 Ms Roxon asked three executives at Philip Morris to support her re-election by attending a $1500 a table fundraiser.
The Labor Party had banned political donations from big tobacco a year earlier under then leader Mark Latham.
“Obviously it’s an embarrassment for me,” Ms Roxon told ABC TV.
“Obviously you don’t want to make these sorts of mistakes.
“But it does need to be kept in perspective. Six years ago an invitation was sent that was not accepted – a donation was not made.”
Ms Roxon accused big tobacco of “playing the man and not the ball”.
She’s previously come under fire for attending the 1999 Australian Open tennis while a guest of Philip Morris.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was quick to sink the boot in on Wednesday.
Ms Roxon has been attacking the coalition in recent weeks for continuing to accept political donations from big tobacco.
She has repeatedly called on Mr Abbott to “kick the habit”.
“Certainly, she has been remarkably shrill on this issue,” the opposition leader told reporters in Canberra.
“It must be a pretty embarrassing thing to have been caught out on this.”
But the coalition didn’t press the issue in Question Time – perhaps because that would inevitably raise fresh questions about the millions big tobacco still donates to the Liberal and National parties.
The coalition has received more than $1.5 million from Philip Morris and British American Tobacco since the ALP banned donations in 2004.
Ninety-seven per cent of BAT’s worldwide donations in 2010 went to the Australian Liberal and National parties.
Opposition health spokesman Peter Dutton was asked about the wisdom of attacking Ms Roxon when the coalition still accepted donations.
In response, he suggested his party’s policy could be reviewed.
“We’ve been up front saying that we accepted donations from a legal company,” Mr Dutton told ABC Radio.
“Now, we may well review that policy into the future.”
A United States business group on Wednesday warned that Australia’s move to mandate plain packaging meant it was in danger of breaching international obligations.
But Ms Roxon is confident the law is on the government’s side.
“We’re not taking away their logos and trademarks to use them somewhere else,” she told Macquarie Radio.
“We’re (just) restricting the use of those logos.”